At the beginning of the eighteenth century, northwestern North Carolina was a frontier, separated from the eastern part of the colony by a number of rivers. When settlers of Scotch-Irish and German descent began to flow into the backcountry in the 1730s, they arrived from the north by way of two major roads, the Great Indian Trading Path and the Great Wagon Road. These early settlers planted corn, as well as tobacco, which thrived in the sandy soil and proved a valuable export to Europe. Over the course of the next two and half centuries, the area’s tobacco industry would boom, affording farming families a reliable source of income.
In the last few decades, the decline in demand for tobacco has forced farmers to begin casting about for other crops. Many have turned to winemaking, and today, dozens of small wineries dot the rolling hills of the Yadkin Valley. Visitors traveling through the valley along US 601 from Yadkinville to Mount Airy will pass vineyards pocketed alongside fields of corn, soybeans, and the occasional chartreuse span of tobacco. They’ll also discover a number of attractions worth a stop, from a popcorn factory to a century-old general store to the childhood home of actor Andy Griffith.
The home of Yadkin Valley Popcorn, this farm-to-bucket Yadkinville enterprise began in 1987 with a couple of acres of cornfields and one customer to which it sold corn kernels. Today, it spans 2,000 acres and ships three to five trailer truckloads of its gourmet flavored popcorn to grocery stores along the East Coast every week. It also exports its fresh-popped confection to customers as far away as Dubai, Vietnam, and Zanzibar. The factory is open for tours (call ahead to schedule a time), which include tastings of its nearly twenty varieties, among them green apple, caramel, birthday cake, and piña colada.
Rockford General Store
Opened in 1890, this general store, located a few winding miles from downtown Dobson in the historic community of Rockford, has been a gathering place for residents for decades. Today, locals and visitors alike sit at the long oil cloth–covered table in the heart of the store to sample a classic North Carolina dessert: sonker. Like a cobbler—but juicier—sonker consists of fruit (apple, blackberry, peach, or whatever is in season), unshaped dough, and sugar or sorghum-cane molasses. After enjoying a warm bowl a la mode, stock up on penny candies and stroll the surrounding village and its dozen or so historic structures built between 1790 and 1900.
The Wine Lodge at Stony Knoll Vineyards
The land on which Stony Knoll Vineyards sits has been in Kathy Coe’s family since 1896. She and her husband, Van, are the sixth generation to work the farm, which produced tobacco until the mid-eighties. In 2002, they brought in their first grape harvest, and five years later, they transformed an 1860s cabin overlooking the vineyard into a rental property for visitors. The low, exposed-beam ceilings, stone fireplace, braided rugs, and family photos dating back to the 1920s, lend the interior a warm, homey feel. And the front porch, with its knockout view of the vineyard, provides the ideal setting for enjoying a glass of Stony Knoll’s rich barrel-fermented chardonnay or smooth cabernet franc.
Andy Griffith Museum
This busy little museum a block off Mount Airy’s Main Street celebrates the town’s favorite son, actor and musician Andy Griffith. Visitors follow Griffith’s life from his birth in 1926 through his early years on stage and the big screen to his television career. Expect plenty of props and costumes from The Andy Griffith Show set in the small town of Mayberry, North Carolina, which was inspired by Mount Airy. Pick up a copy of Aunt Bee’s Mayberry Cookbook or a Floyd’s Barber Shop T-shirt in the gift shop.
One of the only Mount Airy sites specifically mentioned in The Andy Griffith Show, this Main Street diner, open since 1923, is a must for Mayberry pilgrims—so expect a wait. Inside the narrow dining room (complete with a three-stool lunch counter), patrons can take in historic photos of the town while filling up on bologna sandwiches, hot dogs, and signature pork chop sandwiches. For dessert, snag a handmade chocolate pie from the basket beside the cash register.
Wally’s Service Station
During his childhood, Griffith often walked to the station from his nearby home for a snack. Opened in 1937, it was converted to a tourist destination in 2001 and christened Wally’s Service Station, a major Mayberry locale in The Andy Griffith Show. Today, it’s the home of Mayberry Squad Car Tours, which offers an hour-long tour of Mount Airy in a 1965 Ford Galaxy 500 outfitted with a gumball light and vintage police siren. Cruise past sites associated with Griffith’s childhood, as well as local landmarks, such as the world’s largest open-face granite quarry. After your tour, stock up on souvenirs in the gift shop or snap a selfie in the jail cells at the recreated Mayberry Courthouse next door.
Andy Griffith’s Homeplace
Diehard Griffith fans will want to book a stay in his boyhood home on Haymore Street, a short walk from downtown Mount Airy. Griffith lived in the two-bedroom house with his parents until his graduation from high school in 1944. Furnished with pieces from the 1930s and forties and decorated with period knickknacks and pictures, the tidy little house transports guests back in time. After picking up your key at the nearby Hampton Inn, which operates the property, settle into the living room to watch episodes of The Andy Griffith Show on DVD.
The Oil & Gas Memorabilia Museum
You could say that Thornton Beroth has oil in his blood. In 1958, his father founded Beroth Oil, a North Carolina gasoline and heating oil distributorship for Amoco. In 1969, Thornton joined the business, eventually working with his three brothers to add a couple dozen convenience stores, known as Four Brothers Food Stores, to the operation. When he retired in the early aughts, Thornton shifted his focus to this Pilot Mountain museum showcasing his enormous collection of items related to the petroleum industry. After purchasing and renovating the circa-1900 Bank of Mount Pilot building, he transferred five tractor-trailer loads of memorabilia into the space. Today, visitors (who should call ahead to schedule a tour) will find dozens of vintage gas pumps and scores of brilliant neon signs, their light reflected in the highly polished pine floors. Floor-to-ceiling shelves are lined with hundreds of oil cans bearing vintage labels, and counters display a host of promotional items from petroleum companies and gas stations across the nation, including model tankers, clocks, road maps, and paper service-station hats. 336-757-7600
Pilot Mountain State Park
A quartzite monadnock rising 1,400 feet above the surrounding valley, Pilot Mountain was used as a navigational aid for centuries by American Indians as well as European settlers traveling south, who marked its sighting as their entry into North Carolina. Today, it’s a popular recreation spot, offering more than a dozen hiking trails, including the 100-yard Little Pinnacle Overlook Trail, which takes visitors to a bluff overlooking the countryside. From this vantage point, hikers can spot the nearby towns of Pilot Mountain and Mount Airy, as well as the skyline of Winston-Salem, some thirty miles southeast of the mount. Also on view (at least on sunny days) are dozens of high-flying raptors, such as red-tailed hawks and black vultures. Be sure to stop in at the brand-new visitor center to pick up maps and check out exhibits on native wildlife and plants and the history of the mountain.
This article appears in our Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Southbound.